On the most festive night in the Jewish calendar year, Seder night, we deal mostly with one topic: education. Other than the commandment to eat certain things on this night – matzah, bitter herbs and four cups of wine – the central commandment whose spirit dominates the entire festive evening is the commandment to “tell the story of the exodus from Egypt.”
If we look carefully, this is the issue that takes up the most time during Seder night.
In fulfilling this commandment correctly there are two rules: Firstly – that the story should be told in the form of question and answer; that it should be a dialogue and not a monologue.
And secondly – that the story should begin with the sad part of Am Yisrael working in heavy labor in Egypt, with no chance or hope to be set free. From there, the story should continue to the happy part – the “happy end” of the liberation while the Egyptians are punished with the ten plagues.
The parent who tells his child the great national story of the exodus from Egypt sees fit to try to maximize his child’s interest in the story. He induces them to ask questions, wonder and be inquisitive, and thus he guarantees their full attention to the answers he provides. Even the sad beginning of the story elicits full attention and leads to anticipation to hear the end of the story.
Furthermore, our sages who organized the Passover Haggada opened it with the manner in which the father telling the story transfers the ideas to his children, as they categorized the potential children into four categories: wise, evil, innocent and the one who cannot ask.
Even before going into the detailed instructions, which should be read carefully, we notice that the actual categorization presents a challenge.
All the types of sons sit around Am Yisrael’s Seder table: the wise son – he who is interested and wishes to know as much as possible about his nation’s history so he can connect with it; the evil son – he who is disconnected, uninterested and sometimes even defiant; the innocent – the son who does not understand much, but does display some interest; and the son who cannot ask – he who does not even recognize the uniqueness of the Seder night.
Each one of these four sons presents a challenge. But the first statement of Seder night is that we do not give up on any son. We want all of them to sit with us and participate in the discussion. This is because even incorrect opinions are better than escape. The fact that we do not give up on anyone, even if he is now defined as “evil,” is what plants hope within us that by the end of the night we will succeed in connecting all the boys to the Jewish nation and to its wondrous story.
What is interesting is that it is not the evil son who is of utmost concern. The son in whom we are meant to invest our greatest energies is actually he who cannot ask.
Imagine a family who goes to visit a zoo. One child will be amazed by the lion, another by the monkeys, and yet another will relate best to the kangaroo. But if there is a child roaming around the zoo completely disinterested, not even asking the names of the animals, this would certainly elicit concern.
The history of the Jewish nation is amazing. It is the only nation created by God’s choice, unlike other nations created by natural processes of ethnic origin, mutual fate, etc. It is also the only nation that after two thousand years of exile still remembers its land and wishes to return to it. This is unheard of. No less awe-inspiring is the fact that different groups and different tribes of the nation that were dispersed around the world returned and reunited after thousands of years to find that they were all still keeping the same Torah, the same traditions and the same faith.
Is this not something that should elicit curiosity? Can this be ignored? And if there is still someone who cannot ask a question, then this surely is a cause for grave concern.
This is where the parent’s role comes into play – to open their hearts, find the right words and patiently invest the time until the son learns to ask. This is a task of great responsibility, but also of great significance. The truth is that this task is not limited in time, but Seder night, which serves as the pinnacle of bequeathing Jewish tradition from father to son, is a time for parental involvement more than any other day. At the Seder, we will sit with all types of sons, and we will invest in each one of them according to their own style. God willing, we will be proud of all of them.
Wishing you a happy and kosher Passover.Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.